Music plus tech

As a teenager I used to think I would listen to my walkman for the rest of my life. It was so essential to me – the cassette tapes I had painstakingly curated, the stock of fresh AA-size batteries, the headphones I found in an airport in England. The ritual of plugging it all in and pushing play. It just didn’t get any better.

One day in my early 20s I found my dad’s LP collection and an old hifi setup. I heard classics like Otis Redding and Springsteen in such clarity and power. Besides the fidelity, there was the long beautiful process of choosing the record, cleaning it, playing one side through and flipping it over, reading the liner notes, poring over the album covers, adjusting the needle and the audio settings. A new ritual was born. My life changed.

Now in my 30s I have my iPhone and an Apple watch. New tech, new ritual. I can call up any song I want no matter where I am. The digital liner notes are getting better every day and the sheer convenience of Bluetooth and music on the go is changing my life again. Don’t even get me started on Spotify’s daily mix and discover weekly playlists. That revolution in curation is a topic for another post.

Older forms of technology can all still be used of course. And often they retain their original power even though the convenience factor is low. Vinyl has made a come back. Audiophiles also tout the benefits of CDs and cassettes. For me this means I now have an arsenal of ways to access the Music drug. The music is the constant, Platonic form while the tech revolves and morphs around it in a clumsy, circular dance.

Perhaps one day the headphones will be nothing more than chips in our brains. A neuralink device Elon Musk sells for a fee. What might a music listening ritual look like for this scenario?

I get comfort from the fact that the music never changes. Taste and quality may vary, but a song is a song no matter what. The catalogue keeps on growing, but the essential form and function of a song is set. It is information in the form of a sound wave being received by the brain. Only the tech for delivery varies.

Hifi and WW2

Cognitive dissonance is tricky to deal with.

In Germany after the war, Allied forces found a new recording technology – magnetic tape. This provided a huge leap in audio fidelity ahead of disc recordings and rapidly became the dominant mastering medium for sound. The Nazi’s had used it for a while already for broadcasting. It later enabled multi-track recording and led to the first hifi systems being created.

Fast forward 74 years and here we are, the audio equivalent of the autobahn. A Nazi legacy item that audiophiles and musicians couldn’t really do without. Magnetic tape enables those timbres, tones and spacious melodies.

Of course it would have been infinitely better without the war, and with Nazis never having existed.

But here we are.